MONI Opens Smart Payments Pilot To Help the Refugees

MONI – a FinTech startup hailing from Helsinki – known to throw legendary after-parties at Arctic15 and Slush has launched a pilot partnership with the Finnish Immigration Service.

As a strong believer in the culture of helping, the pilot for refugee payments and letting friends borrow and lend money without interest or costs shows MONI is on the right track, swaying away from traditional banking systems which are designed to charge you even if you are not doing anything. We’ve been following MONI’s development closely and have waited a long time to be able to write about them. And today finally the time has come and we’re excited to share their story and introduce MONI to you.

Sweden having Klarna and Estonia giving birth to Transferwise, could MONI be the one from Finland making big impact in people’s lives?

Hatching MONI Since 1998

MONI founder Antti Pennanen tells us that it all started already back in 1998, when he was founding his first company. Antti had so many ideas for online services but they were all impossible to implement due to the non-existing online payment infrastructure. For example, if you accepted credit cards online, you had to wait to get the money for 6-9 months due to the fraud prevention.

More recently Antti was frustrated with the current banks and their user experience both online and offline. They seemed to be so stuck in the previous millennium with their tech and they also had become very impersonal towards their customer. When bitcoin entered the market, he started to see the first signs of the upcoming disruption – financial industry becoming consumer driven instead of being bank driven. That’s when Antti realised that it is time to get more serious and focus 100% of his time on MONI.

Tackling The Refugee Problem

As practically everywhere in Europe, there is a steady flow of refugees arriving to Finland too. In 2014 Finland took in 3,000 refugees and the estimate for this year is 50,000, and the number is expected to grow more during 2016. Each registered refugee is entitled to a monthly allowance from the government, set at 316€ for a single adult. As it is understandable, these people do not have accounts in Finnish banks, but still the allowance must be paid to them somehow. Traditionally it has been done in cash, which of course is not the most convenient way to do it. And that’s where MONI steps in to help.

The Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) has chosen MONI for one of its pilot programs to provide refugees with MONI Prepaid MasterCards and mobile-first, customisable payment accounts. The prepaid cards are used to replace the current cash payments, which are not safe, nor cheap. When the refugees eventually get jobs, their salaries can be paid to MONI accounts as well. The first test cards were distributed to refugees around mid-November.

“As the refugee influx in all EU countries is growing, finding ways to create efficiencies via modern technology in payments, is a welcome change, and at the end of day not a solution only for Finland, but for all European countries,” says Jouko Salonen, CAO of the Finnish Immigration Service.

Antti Pennanen tells us that together with Migri they were playing with the idea of providing prepaid cards to asylum seekers already earlier, but their platform that time wasn’t ready yet. In September when the news of refugees crossing the borders spread out, they were in touch again with Jouko and realised that this would be a good time to try everything in action.

“The process with Migri has been super smooth, I was surprised how much smart people with the entrepreneurial “Let’s do this” attitude they have in the government offices. We got the first test cards delivered to the users in less than 2 months from the initial conversation which I think is amazing,” Pennanen adds.

After the pilot MONI is preparing for the launch of its smart payment technology in other European countries.

The Circle of Trust

In addition to the pilot with Immigration Service, MONI launched its new consumer product called Circle of Trust. It lets you choose the friends you would loan money to, set the maximum amount you would loan, and if any of your friends need a loan, they can easily ask for it and once granted the money is available instantly to be used on their MONI Prepaid MasterCards. Loans between friends have no fees and no interest, and the service is free to use. And naturally MONI keeps track of who owes who.

Good thing about MONI card is that it is part of the MasterCard network which has over 30 million locations to shop worldwide, and as it has top-notch security in place. MONI has added a few neat tricks on top of the “basic” card experience, though. If you lose your card, you can lock it directly from your phone, and it also lets you know if someone tries to use it afterwards.

Photo by MONI

The Investment

MONI’s $1.75M seed round had participation from a very international set of investors – Formation 8, Maxfield Capital and Digital Currency Group – joined by a group of private investors from Europe, USA and Brazil. On top of the cash, the mentioned investors bring in a great combination of strategic support, operative experience and technology expertise on a global scale.

“We funded the development of the prototypes with my CTO Jani Kajala for quite long time by providing services and platform to the credit & consumer loan industry. That’s how we initially learned the basics and the bottlenecks of financial systems. We built a first prototype of our patented authentication technology during spring 2014. I went to show it to couple of VCs in Finland, but the major breakthrough happened soon after that,” Antti tells us.

Antti had been traveling to Switzerland and Puerto Rico and instead of flying back home to Finland, he decided to fly to San Francisco and reached out to his network to get some intros to the local angels and VCs. When he landed in SF, he literally had hundreds of intros in his inbox and went to the first meeting directly from the airport. He was having around 5 to 10 meetings per day, for 3 weeks in a row.

“Literally I had a meeting and my friend was sending me a messages like this “With the current traffic it will take you 17 minutes with Uber to get to the next meeting in the address XYZ” With all those meetings with that pace, you can guess how much my pitch improved during those weeks, it was like crash course to VC funding!”

This was actually the first time in his life that Antti was looking to raise from VCs and he had no first hand experience on how the process works.

“My friends from SF and Finland, especially Daniel Gruneberg from ZOZI and Ville Miettinen from MicroTask, were super helpful and helped me a lot with my stupid questions. After the first week in SF I met Joe Lonsdale who had heard about MONI Magic and invited me to a barbecue party at his house. He saw my demo and soon after that I had my first term sheet in my hands. It all started rolling from there. We took our time to get the round closed because I wanted to have a widely global investors backing us up, after all we’re building a global product. I also wanted to keep the company in Europe, so that made it for some US funds hard to invest in us.”

As MONI received the most of their funding already in January, they have been building the team and the product in stealth mode. Even there were some rumours on the streets, they didn’t want to make a buzz of themselves before they had validated and tested their technology.

Getting into financial industry is not a cheap road, so most likely they’ll raise a bigger round in the future to fund the further development, expansion and market entry.

Beyond The Refugees

MONI does not target only refugees but especially the underbanked in the world, like the micro entrepreneurs in Brazil and other South American markets. Also, their tools allow for anyone to handle their daily financial transactions, so it’s not only limited to the underbanked.

“I’ve been using MONI as my main banking tool for last 6 months already and I can’t believe how I have been able to survive without it earlier.“

“I think everyone will benefit from the upcoming disruption of the financial industry. In the end, money is like water, everybody needs it and it needs to flow freely. It wouldn’t make sense to build a platform for finance that would limit transactions between any demographics. That I think is the real financial freedom, but you need to start from somewhere and this is our first step closer to our goal – making the world more equal place for everyone,“ Antti closes it.